Eaton: Defunding the military will not restore arts programs


Andrew Magill from Boulder, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lack of funding in the arts may not be the fault of military spending.

Elena Eaton, Lead Copy Editor

If you’ve ever taken a high school arts course, chances are that between rinsing your brushes in the recycled plastic yogurt containers and using old newspapers and magazines as paint pallets, you’ve heard a familiar mantra: “The arts are the first to go.”

Often satirized in TV programs, like “Glee” or “Backstage,” the underfunding of arts programs is a topic most are familiar with. What few are educated on, however, is the reasoning behind this federal backing — specifically why tax dollars are being directed elsewhere.

Arts education funding varies from state to state, but Title I Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act stipulates federal funding be allocated to low-income school districts using census poverty estimate-based formulas and based on the cost of education in the area. Mississippi recognizes the importance of an arts education and also gave precedence to arts programs in its SSAE funding. 

Combined with grants and other local funding, arts programs should be flourishing, right? Not exactly. The National Endowment for the Arts, yet another source of federal funding for the arts, appropriated $147.9 million to nationwide school art programs in 2016, yet this sum was only 0.004% of the federal budget, and paled in comparison to expenditures of other federal resources. For example, in that same year President Barack Obama’s proposed military budget was 16% of the federal budget — an estimated $634.2 billion.

How much is spent on the military is a contentious topic for a number of reasons. Some argue there is no need to build up a military when we are not actively under threat. Others see the spending as a matter of pride, each boastable military endeavor inflating American self-perception tenfold. Perhaps this is true, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. What concerns me is the comparison of arts program funding and military funding.  

Clearly arts programs do not receive as much fiscal attention as the military, but this comparison is a little too far-fetched to present a significant solution to federal underfunding of school art classes. Apples to oranges, the importance of each interest is too varied to allow comparison.  

The U.S. funds the military so heavily for a myriad of reasons: having a strong military allows the U.S. to assist other nations in battle, in turn increasing influence in foreign affairs; allocating more funds to the military allows soldiers to earn a livable wage (as is not always the case in other countries); preparing expensive cutting-edge technology and other funding-intensive efforts. 

The vast majority of these reasons strengthen our national defense, an essential element of keeping our country safe from outside invasion, and while an arts education is important to the well-roundedness of future generations of students, it isn’t vital to their future success or the future success of our country. 

The importance is just not equal; nonetheless, the arts are important. So where will the extra money come from? Well, we don’t really know, but naively chanting “defund the military” won’t get art programs any more consideration when it comes to divvying up the federal budget. Instead, what arts programs desperately need is a realistic plan of where exactly to get more funding from.  Instead of fighting against the system, art education supporters, advocates and patrons learning to work within the system will give arts programs that extra consideration and allow students to receive a deserved, well-rounded education.